It is an excellent illustration of what I meant in a previous post about "thick descriptions" of things in cultures. Here are two fundamental insights into meaning:
- The meaning of language is in how it is used, not simply in defining each word.
- The meaning of an action or an event is a function of its socio-cultural context. If an action has a universal significance, it is because of commonality between every such context.
So it is with truth telling. I remember being at a church where some of the leaders would get very upset that individuals from another culture would tell them they were going to be at church Sunday and then would never show up. To me, this was a cultural conflict rather than a matter of them being liars or, worse, it being typical of their "lying culture." I knew what they were doing with their words.
The use of the words, "Yes, I'll be there Sunday" had a social function rather than an informative one. "Yes, I'll be there Sunday" meant "I like you and don't want to offend you... even though I don't know if I'll come Sunday or not." I considered it the cultural ignorance of the church leaders to assume that the meaning of words is always propositional, that the meaning of the words must be straightforwardly and literally defined in order to be truthful (if you disagree with me, don't ever step anywhere near a mission field). The meaning of words has to do with what we are "doing" with them rather than some propositional content... unless of course what we're doing with them is in fact propositional.
Read the rest here.